Does sports fandom help or hurt our walk with Jesus?
When I hear someone say, “War Eagle,” or see someone wearing Auburn sports gear I almost reflexively feel obligated to respond, “Roll Tide!” In fact, it seems like a duty, a moral responsibility even. Years ago, Bill Clinton’s campaign guru and LSU alum, James Carville was asked by the Wall Street Journal to explain the fanatical devotion of legions of fans who never took a step inside a classroom at the schools they follow. He quipped, “Half the people in that stadium can’t spell LSU. It doesn’t matter. They identify with it. It’s culturally such a big deal.”
As a son of Alabama, the heart of Dixie, and the buckle of the SEC football belt, I would suggest this is one of those rare occasions when James Carville was understated. To call football in the South culturally a big deal is akin to saying the Grand Canyon is a big hole. I'm writing this article a short time after rivalry weekend in college football. Michigan and Ohio State meet each year in a historic border clash that is one of the greatest rivalries in all of sports. But when you hail from Alabama, rivalry weekend means only one thing—the Iron Bowl. Anytime Alabama and Auburn meet on the football field everything else in the state grinds to a halt. This year's Iron Bowl was hyped as the biggest ever and the game lived up to it (though the wrong team won). Tickets with a face value of $95 were going for an average of $638 on the resale market. To put that in perspective, the state's average monthly mortgage payment is $809.
Football analyst Beano Cook once said, “Alabama-Auburn is not just a rivalry. It’s Gettysburg South.” The thought of a wedding or funeral in the state of Alabama on the day of the Iron Bowl would be met with a “Bless their heart” and “I'm sorry, I won't be able to make it.” Even those who do not care about football and the outcome of any game on the gridiron are still unavoidably affected by the Alabama-Auburn rivalry because almost everybody else cares. Wayne Flynt, professor emeritus of history at Auburn, suggests the South’s devotion to college football is rooted in regional pride associated with the attempt to recover from the post-Reconstruction era. He notes, when Alabama headed to the 1926 Rose Bowl as a laughable opponent against the heavily favored Washington Huskies, the president of rival Auburn sent a telegram telling them, “You are defending the honor of the South, and God’s not gonna let you lose this game.” The stunning victory was immortalized in the Alabama fight song. I am an unabashed football fan, but I do not write this article as a fan—rather, as a Christian pastor and a seminary professor. This discussion of football fandom begs the question, is this good or bad? My answer is an unequivocal yes. It all depends on whether sports are summed up in Christ or abstracted from him.
There is a sense in which affinity group allegiance to a particular sports team, especially when geographically based, is simply a cultural manifestation of the importance of place and rootedness. Our transient, globalized culture often feels awkward about our rootedness, but we must remember that when the cosmic Lord came in human flesh he was known, even by demons, as “Jesus of Nazareth” (Mark 1:24). Some saw his rootedness in an ordinary family and a modest town as a liability (John 1:46, 6:42, 7:27). But Jesus was from somewhere and it mattered and the same is true for us.
Our rootedness in this fallen world should serve our longing for rootedness in the world to come (Heb. 11:16). We have already had the opportunity to experience family, fellowship, camaraderie, love, and place, however imperfectly. To act as though we come from nowhere is a prideful commentary on our understanding of the past as well as the future. We all long to be a part of a community, an entity greater than the individual, and one that will help provide a sense of belonging, identity and unity. These longings are only ultimately fulfilled in Jesus Christ and his unshakable kingdom community, the church. Nevertheless, it is most natural that these longings be reflected in limited but genuine ways in our lives.
Many years ago at a pastor’s conference I attended, someone asked, pastor and theologian Sinclair Ferguson if he had one piece of advice to offer about parenting what would it be? His response, the best I can remember it, was something like, “Based on who is in this room I would suggest you tie more than one string to your children. Teach them about God, teach them the Bible, but also have other interests with them as well. If you are into sports then connect with them through sports. If you're into construction then connect with them through construction. Use those interests to connect with them, and teach them about God through those as well." His admonition has always stuck with me. I would guess that his comments reflected a failure he had witnessed among pastors and seminarians to teach their children to sum up all things in Christ (Eph. 1:10).
A seminary professor recently commented to me, “Football is not necessary, so why waste time on it—time that could be better spent advancing the gospel?” The comment represents a tragically false secular/sacred dichotomy. The gospel transforms every category and every activity in the believer's life. Too many Christians have been led to believe that outside of directly sharing the gospel the rest of life amounts to twiddling our thumbs and waiting for eternity. This kind of compartmentalized understanding of Christian living renders admiring beautiful art, spending time reading an engrossing novel, or watching ballet-like choreography meet brute force in a football game as wasting time. It represents a woeful and inadequate expression of the Christian worldview. I consider sports to be a competitive manifestation of the performing arts, capable of displaying truth, beauty and goodness. Abraham Kuyper’s dictum should shape our interest in sports, "Oh, no single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: 'Mine!'"
Herein lies a pervasive problem. It is not only those who consider sports a waste of time who sever it from Christian living, far too often, those Christians who enjoy athletics do the same. Our responsibility is to take every thought captive to obey Jesus (2 Cor. 10:5)—including sports. In many ways sport fandom and team loyalty is a lot like patriotism for one's country. To despise one's country is an act of rebellion against the providence of God but to blindly idolize one's country is an act of rebellion of another sort. Patriotism, rightly understood in a Christian worldview, is a natural recognition of God’s good providence and his sovereignty in determining our place, rootedness and story. We come from somewhere and we are a part of a family line whose sacrifices in generations past have shaped our story. Our country and our families are not ultimate, but they are important, and showing them honor is a way we honor Christ (1 Pet. 2:13-17).
No matter our present address, Christians are elect exiles, sojourners, whose citizenship is in heaven (Phil. 3:20, 1 Pet. 1:2, 2:11). Our background, nationality, and family identity are not ultimate, but they do serve as markers of the of God’s expansive grace. For many of us, our cultural story, our family story, includes allegiance to certain sports teams. I don't have to sit around and wonder how I became an Alabama football fan or Atlanta Braves fan. I am both because my father cheered wholeheartedly for both. We went to games at Bryant-Denny Stadium and Fulton County Stadium. We wore Alabama shirts and Braves hats. My mother made special meals on big game days, and we celebrated the victories of the teams with which we identified. It is a part of my story, my place. As hard as it is for me to imagine if I had been born in a different region, I might even appreciate soccer.
Finding idolatrous excesses in the devotion to a particular sports team is not difficult, tragically, even among professing Christians. In my home state, the Alabama-Auburn rivalry has been connected to incarceration, divorce, violence, and recently, the poisoning of majestic trees that were a part of one of the grandest traditions in college football. For such people, allegiance to a favorite team is not enjoyment of God’s good gift of athletics, or a cultural identity marker but an obvious idol. Most who read this article will never contemplate such atrocious acts; however, idolatry that is more subtle is no less an act of rebellion. If a man cannot delight in God with thanksgiving for a hard fought contest when his team loses, he is perverting God's good gift of athletics, and teaching those around him to do the same. Christian father, if you cannot root like crazy with your children for your favorite team—only to see them lose—and afterward laugh and play in the yard with your kids, you have a problem; it's called idolatry.
The apostle Paul seizes the metaphor of sports as a key image to explain Christian living because success in athletics demands purposeful self-sacrifice and requires self-discipline for a cause greater than the individual (Heb. 12:1-2). A Christian approach to sports as a spectator is to be inspired by the honed physical gifts and the determination of those who participate on behalf of his or her favorite team. Christians should be challenged to offer a similar purposeful, sacrificial devotion and discipline in their vocation and endeavors. How many Christian fathers rigorously critique the job performance, dedication, and work ethic of the coach of their favorite team while simultaneously complaining about their job and excusing their own lack of work ethic and dedication? Where this is happening the love of sports has become detached from the Christian life and transformed into a barrier rather than a bridge to worshipping Christ. Fans watch and enjoy the beauty, effort and action the contest brings out in its participants. Christian fans should be challenged to agonize in similar fashion for the glory of Christ in their own vocation (Col. 3:17).
The Christian with a rightly ordered, Christ-centered worldview is uniquely in a position to enjoy athletic competition as a good gift from God, and his or her sports loyalties as a demonstration of our providential rootedness in time, place, family and community. Of course, we can make an idol out of country, family, or allegiance to our favorite sports team. But the gospel does not obliterate these cultural connections. It reinterprets them in light of the gospel story and our responsibility to seek first the kingdom of God (Matt. 6:33, 1 Cor. 2:2). I'm thankful that I was taught as a child to say “Roll Tide,” but believe it or not, I'm equally thankful that others say, “War Eagle.” But, I am most thankful that—whether we are Aggies or Longhorns, Cats or Cardinals, Buckeyes or Wolverines, Ducks or Beavers—in Christ we all say, “Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev. 22:20).